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Art has 'life of its own' in Shulleeta paintings

Art has 'life of its own' in Shulleeta paintings

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A good night’s sleep is no match for Glenda Shulleeta’s enthusiasm in an art studio.

When she was teaching high school art a few years ago, she once worked through the night to finish something she wanted to share with her students.

“I think I worked 18 hours straight on that,” she said recently in her home studio. “I started and I just couldn’t stop. I had to get it done.”

The “it” was a life-size mannequin of a woman. It sits now in a corner of the bright studio, a colorfully whimsical homage to whatever it was in Shulleeta’s mind that made her click that night.

The piece is likely to make an appearance in March when Shulleeta will be the featured artist in the gallery space of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The show will be the newspaper’s third tied to First Fridays, the downtown art walk. The first was in December with furniture maker Sam Forrest and the second in February was with wildlife artist Robert Louis Caldwell.

Shulleeta got the mannequin thinking it would be a good tool for teaching her Advanced Placement art students at Mills Godwin High School in Henrico County.

Then it occurred to her that maybe she shouldn’t just carry an unadorned likeness of a woman into a school.

“I wasn’t sure I could take in a nude mannequin, so I dressed it up,” she said.

Shulleeta has been dressing up canvas, paper, mannequins and a variety of other surfaces at a furious rate in recent years as she has made fast work of settling into the latest phase in her busy life: full-time professional artist.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to make the jump, I’m going to make it now,’ ” she said of giving up the classroom for the uncertain world of selling her work.

She’s a relative newcomer to art.

After raising three children, she decided to go to college and pursue a bachelor’s degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.

At age 40, she showed up on campus and walked into a school known for its incredibly talented, if occasionally eccentric, students.

She stuck out a bit.

“You’re probably a different student at 40 than you are at 18,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m paying for this class. I have to get everything out of it I can.’ ”

In the frenetic style that seems to define everything she does, Shulleeta raced through college as her children, two daughters and a son — Times-Dispatch reporter Brandon Shulleeta — finished high school.

She worked toward a degree in interior design, including study at VCU’s campus in Qatar.

About the time she was graduating, the economy collapsed. With it went her hopes of a career in interior design. Instead, she found work as a substitute teacher.

She liked the classroom so much, she went back to school again and earned a teaching certificate from the University of Richmond. She took a full-time job teaching art to elementary school children in King William County.

“The students were the turning point for me,” she said. “They taught me how to simplify things. After working with them, I know what form means.”

She taught there for four years, then spent one year at Godwin. Two years ago this June, she left teaching to focus solely on art. She works primarily in acrylic and watercolors.

The acrylics she does in a fairly straightforward manner, usually with brushes but also with palette knives, sticks and bubble wrap.

“I love bubble wrap,” she said, picking up a paint-covered piece from a table in her studio. “You can do so much with it.”

With watercolors, she has developed her own decidedly nontraditional technique. She saturates a piece of paper with water, then works the paint across the surface.

“It kind of takes on a life of its own,” she said. “I sort of know what I’ll get, but not really.”

When the paint dries, she uses markers to give the work shape and form, usually with playful touches that aren’t always evident on first view.

“You can find little fish or faces, just fun stuff,” she said as she traced her fingers over a finished piece.

This will be her first solo show, but it’s not the first time she has shown her work. She has been a regular participant in Arts Around The Lake, a juried show held annually on the campus of the University of Richmond.

She also recently began showing her work at Crossroads Art Center, in Henrico County near Willow Lawn.

“I took a few pieces there to show them, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get in,” she said. “There are so many amazing artists with work there, it’s kind of overwhelming.”

She fit right in.

“We look for artists who are doing things we don’t have and whose work is good,” said Jennifer Kirby, who runs Crossroads. “Her work is fun, loose and whimsical.”

Kirby and Kay Goldsby, the manager of the center, stood in front of a wall of Shulleeta’s paintings and marveled at her technique, color choice and subject matter.

“She paints barns, which are iconic images,” Kirby said. “Everyone remembers seeing a barn in a field. But she makes them modern.”

Shulleeta is working in bright colors now, with a palette full of oranges, blues and yellows. She said she loves the challenges of transforming a fresh canvas into a piece of art.

About the only thing she won’t try is a commission.

“I did a couple early on, but I won’t do anymore,” she said. “I can’t imagine what someone else is thinking. I don’t always know what I’m thinking.

“I just hope everyone else gets a good feeling.”

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